By Rick Rodriguez Special to Published Oct 16, 2013 at 4:59 PM

For the seventh straight year, October is Dining Month on, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2013."

I first dined at Balistreri’s Italian American Ristorante, 812 N. 68th St., around 10 years ago when I was exploring my neighborhood for good places to eat. The Wauwatosa restaurant looks the same way now as it did when I first visited.

Dark green carpeting, green table tops, dark stained chairs, and beige colored walls displaying several mirrors and the Italian flag give the restaurant the feel of a neighborhood meeting place that you would have found 30 years ago on Milwaukee’s East Side on, or near, Brady Street.

The history of Balistreri’s restaurants can be found on their website, but it starts with James "Jim" Balistreri working at his uncle’s Bella Food Service in 1954. In 1958, he made pizzas at the Caradaro Club in the Third Ward until he was drafted in 1964.

Between 1966 and 1967, Balistreri opened three restaurants. Balistreri’s Italian American Ristorante opened in 1968 as his fourth restaurant, located in its current site on 68th Street. Balistreri’s Bluemound Inn, 6501 W. Bluemound Road, followed much later, in 1996, and remains one of the two restaurants still open, along with the Wauwatosa location. 

Balistreri’s Bluemound Inn provides a vastly different atmosphere than the Ristorante. Upon entering, you’ll see a full bar, and tables topped with white linen and white butcher block paper providing a more upscale dining ambiance. Outside, a large wooden deck greets diners seeking an al fresco experience.

The menus are very different at the two restaurants, with Balistreri’s Bluemound Inn offering more options. However, the pizza recipe at both locations is the same.

The menu at Balistreri’s Italian American Ristorante includes appetizers, such as a baked French onion soup, not found on the other location’s menu. The menu also features salads, sandwiches, seafood entrees, "Old Italian Favorites" like veal parmesan and Sicilian style steak, pastas, pizza and a Friday cod fish fry.

As large as the restaurant’s menu is, the Balistreri’s Bluemound Inn menu offers an even bigger selection of pastas, salads, appetizers, panini, seafood dinners and various Italian preparations for veal, chicken, pork and beef.

The pizzas at both locations come in three sizes, a 10-inch round "junior," an 11-by-13 inch oval "medium," and a 14-by-16 inch oval "large." Cheese pizzas range from $12.20 to $18, with additional toppings ranging from 75 cents to $3.25 each.

Balistreri’s allows diners to choose canned or fresh mushrooms for their pizza, but fresh mushrooms, as well as a few other premium toppings, will cost $1.50 to $2 more, resulting in the $3.25 topping charge I mentioned.

Diners can also order extra sauce and/or a thick crust at no additional charge.

The pizzas at the Italian American Ristorante are essentially build-your-own, while the Bluemound Inn offers the same build-your-own options at the same prices, but also offers gourmet pizzas ranging from $18 to $28.

The gourmet pizzas include Margherita, Pesto Shrimp, Chicken San Remo, White Pizza, a spicy Pizza Arrabbiata, and a Milwaukee Pizza topped with white cheddar, charbroiled bratwurst, polish sausage, red onions and caramelized sauerkraut.

When I arrived at the Ristorante around 4:20 on a Saturday afternoon, most of the tables were open. I was seated promptly and greeted by a very friendly server.

I ordered a sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza, and admired the pizzas arriving at the surrounding tables while I waited.

One thing I remember about Balistreri’s pizzas is that the crust was often very soft. When my pizza arrived, it was just like I remembered. The outer half inch of the crust had a cracker crunch, the rest of the crust had a much softer texture.

The slices were cut into small squares, which made them easier to hold as they became flimsy and a bit messy.

I didn’t really mind because the taste is more important. The spicy flavor of the sauce, combined with its somewhat thick texture, quickly made up for the flimsy pizza slices.

The large chunks of Italian sausage, which is made fresh by a local butcher, was delicious and had a subtle kick. The same is true of the pepperoni slices.

The one disappointment was the decision I made to go with canned mushrooms instead of paying the extra $1.50 for fresh mushrooms. The canned mushrooms almost ruined a great pizza. That’s what I get for being cheap. At least I was eventually smart enough to take the mushrooms off. I won’t make that mistake again. Fresh mushrooms or bust.

Next time, I’ll skip the mushrooms and ask for a crispier crust. That would make the pizza almost perfect for me.

When I left 40 minutes later, every table in both dining rooms was taken except the one I just left, and customers were already walking up to the carry-out window outside the kitchen. So yeah, it’s a popular place.

When I looked at the menu for Bluemound Inn and saw the gourmet pizzas, I figured I had to stop in on another day and try one. When I arrived, again I was seated promptly and greeted by a friendly server.

She told me the specials, but my mind was set on pizza. I decided on the Chicken San Remo, mainly because it sounded like it would photograph well. Luckily, it also tasted pretty good.

It arrived on a round, white porcelain platter. I believe the crust was brushed with olive oil, though the description didn’t mention it. Then it’s topped with goat cheese, roasted red peppers, portabella mushrooms, spinach and diced grilled chicken breast.

Some of the chicken was a bit dry, but it was well-seasoned. The red peppers provided a great layer of flavor, and the goat cheese didn’t have the overpowering flavor it normally does. Just the right amount was applied.

The pizza was cut into triangular pie slices, and the crust was thin but thick enough to hold well without flopping over. I would order this pizza again.

One tasty pizza in two locations, all wrapped up in a package for you. Many of you have experienced Balistreri’s. Those who like thin crust pizzas and have not been to Balistreri’s might want to pay them a visit. You might have to ask them to make your crust crispy, but I think you’ll like it.

If you find that the Wauwatosa location is full, you may want to try your luck at the Bluemound Inn. Just don’t wear a tank top. You’ll find out why when you get there.

Rick Rodriguez Special to
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, and I plan to stay in Milwaukee forever. I'm the oldest of three children and grew up in the Riverwest neighborhood. My family still lives in the same Riverwest house since 1971.

I graduated from Rufus King High School and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a business degree.

My true passion for Milwaukee probably started after I joined the Young Professionals of Milwaukee (now called FUEL Milwaukee) which just celebrated its one year anniversary at the time. The events that I attended, and sometimes organized, really opened my eyes to what Milwaukee had to offer, as well as its potential for the future. So for the past, present, and future FUEL Milwaukee corporate sponsors out there, that organization does produce results (editorial)!

I love all of the Milwaukee Sports teams, professional and amateur. I love the Milwaukee arts scene and all of the festivals. I love that you can find a free concert in the summer just about every day of the week. I love the various neighborhoods around the Milwaukee area and the unique characteristics that they offer. I love the people who take the time to tell us about those unique characteristics. I have to hold my breath and count to ten when someone tells me that there is nothing to do in Milwaukee. Then I prove them wrong.

Most of all, I love the Milwaukee dining scene. I love how it continues to evolve with modern dishes and new trends while the classic restaurants continue to remind us that great food doesn't have to be "fancy schmancy." However, I also love the chefs that create the "fancy schmancy" dishes and continue to challenge themselves and Milwaukee diners with dishes we've never seen before.

Our media provides attention to the new restaurants, which is great, but I don't like seeing the older great restaurants close their doors (Don Quijote, African Hut) because they've been forgotten, so I try to do my part to let Milwaukeeans know that they're still out there, too. I do that through social media, online reviews, and a dinner club I run for my friends, where we visit restaurants they haven't heard of before or try ethnic cuisine they haven't had before.

My dream is that one day I can mention a great experience in Milwaukee and not have someone respond with "have you been to Chicago?" I don't like those people very much.